bit smaller than I expected (seves me right for expecting!), but
wonderful in a dark, random, melancholy, chaotic kind of way -- "The
Assembly of the Dead" / "The Mosque of Nothing", as
the name translates after all. Within sight (i.e. 500 m) of the
massive Koutoubia minaret, on a site that was a place of execution
apparently well into the 19th century -- a pagan, almost lawless
place. Part cheap-thrill carnival, part nuthouse, part music
festival, part anit-Islam release-valve, part gay cruise, part
pickpocket paradise, part tourist trap, part country fair. And more.
I found it mildly predictable after 10 minutes, slightly sad, kind of
inspiring, a bit frightening, strangely instructive, otherworldly,
and tiring. But Ill be back there tomorrow night."
If tomorrow the
government for some reason disappeared and we were all left without a
system of state would it in fact be such a bad thing?
people across the planet (and especially in the USA) who say that
anarchy or virtually no government involvement in our lives is the
best situation for the individual.
What they don't recognise is that
without important services for the public, run by the
public sector all that is left is the whims of a small number of the
richest to decide what the rest of us get and how much it will cost.
Since the collapse of
communism as an economic alternative to capitalism in the 1990's and
mainstream acceptance of market forces as the single dominant
principle following the Thatcher/Reagan era, it has been fashionable
to see the public sector as the biggest problem to deal with.
recent example proves exactly the opposite. The financial disaster
that has swept across Europe since 2008 has shown us that terrible
errors made in the banking sector demanded huge amounts of taxpayer's
money to prop-up and compensate for excessive risk-taking by finance
The ideologues who argued against
government regulation and oversight are the very same people who have
put out their hands for government bailouts for their shaky financial
What this continuing disaster clearly shows is
that those making decisions in the private sector are at least as
likely to stuff up as those in the public sector.
And they are in
fact even more likely to make judgements that are in their own
self-interest rather than any notion of the common good because that
is the nature of business.
To survive they must make profits. In
smaller operations the overriding concern is to keep the books
balanced and not go into the red too often or for too long. In larger
companies with shareholders their main job is to make sure that these
shareholders get significant dividends - good returns on their
investments. All other matters are minor when compared to the
financial bottom line.
Yes, there are some corporations and some
bosses who are ethical and treat their employees well but especially
in multinational companies those in ultimate control (ie. owners and
shareholders) often do not even live in the same cities or even the
same countries as the workers who create the revenue for them. Their
greatest prioritiy is to produce more wealth for the already wealthy.
On the other hand, there
is the public sector. Governments routinely fail the people they are
supposed to be accountable to - not shareholders, but instead
citizens, or at least voters.
We should not confuse the incompetence
or corruption in governments of every kind with incompetence or
corruption in the private sector because there are some crucial
In theory, every few years electors in democratic
countries have the opportunity to remove governments that let them
down, and in fact we often do this.
When the political system itself
fails its citizens, such as in the two-party system that has caused
many of us to question democracy itself (including in Spain, the UK
and the USA) an alternative should arise before too long, provided
that the populace takes a strong enough interest in how well it is
governed. In Spain, Podemos is one example of this.
The 20th century had one fundamental battle of ideas
that ran through it and that was the battle over how much government
we would have in our lives and why.
One extreme end of the spectrum
held that complete state control of the economy was ideal but across
China, Russia and Eastern Europe this has proved to be too much to
So-called free-marketeers countered that this proved that
government "interference" in the supply and demand of goods
and services (including the supply of labour) was mistaken - that it
is somehow counter to human nature.
In this column next month I will
be arguing why it is they who are in fact mistaken.
15 years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. They
had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So
they decided to do something radically different.
They resolved to
decriminalize all drugs, and take all the money they once spent on
arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on
reconnecting them—to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The
most crucial step was to get them secure housing and subsidized jobs,
so they had a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for.
In warm and welcoming clinics, addicts are taught how to reconnect
with their feelings, after years of trauma. One
group of addicts was given a loan to set up a removals firm.
Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other and to society,
and responsible for each other's care. An
independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that
since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and intraveneous
drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization
has been such a success that very few people in Portugal want to go
back to the old system. The
main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao
Figueira, the country's top drug cop. He offered all the dire
warnings we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But
when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he
predicted had not come to pass—and he now hopes the whole world
will follow Portugal's example."
the most liberal laws in the world governing physician-assisted
suicide, surveys in Belgium show overwhelming support for its
legality. Doctors say euthanasia gives terminally ill patients
experiencing constant and unbearable suffering a practical and humane
way to die peacefully. But even in a country with far-reaching
acceptance, controversy still remains."
last month we witnessed the latest craze from the USA arrive here.
doubt, the Black Friday sales will now be an annual event and will
certainly grow in intensity each year.
anything accurately represents pure, raw capitalism it was the sight
of crowds of people surging and barging though department store
doors. Some had bulging eyes.
were smiling in anticipation or possibly relief at finally being
inside the gates of the consumerist's palace. Other people were
clearly using their arms and shoulders to shove slower shoppers out
of their way.
In the UK police had
to restrain mobs at some Tesco stores and arguments and fights broke
out in branches of ASDA (owned by U.S. giant Wal-Mart.) Four arrests
for violence were made in Greater Manchester alone. One report quoted a
56-year-old hairdresser on an overnight trip to a Sainsbury
supermarket saying that the scenes were "crazy" and
"disgusting". "I got a Dyson [vacuum cleaner], but I
don't even know if I want it. I just picked it up," she said. This pandemonium is
aside from the online sales that also form part of the Black Friday
marketing push. Amazon was the first
to introduce the trend into Europe in 2010 and this year in Germany
and France a number of major retailers (including FNAC) publicised
the day and offered claims of reductions. In Spain, El Corte
Inglés went even further than its rivals and hosted a four-day
fiesta of supposed discounts. Naturally, it was in
the US where the day went to it's animalistic extremes of riots and
frenzied stampedes. Last year there were
separate incidences of a shooting and a stabbing and this year five
injuries were recorded, along with three arrests. The website
BlackFridayDeathCount.com has kept records of relevant news stories
and has documented at least seven deaths and ninety six injuries in
the U.S. since 2006. (Somewhat ironically, the website also sells
T-shirts with the words "I survived Black Friday" on them
for $18.00.) Of course, I'm all in
favour of a real bargain and I love a bit of a haggling at a market
stall. I would think that
many of the people who buy in store or online on Black Friday are
genuinely wanting to save money on something that they may not have
been able to afford without a drop in the sale price or they simply
believe that they are getting a product that will in some way enhance
their lives. I just question
whether a lot of the buying is in any real sense, needed. Having grown up in an
Australian city where the shopping mall was the focus of social life
for the easily-influenced young, as well as plenty of retired people,
I have a fundamental disagreement with spending money as a major free
time pursuit. Europe is full of
parks, beaches, squares and even ramblas: all public spaces
not specifically made for commercial activity. Anyone is free to be
in theses places without thinking of them self as a consumer first. In a shopping mall
there are usually almost no seats that are not part of some kind of
cafe or food joint. To be there is to be a buyer. Simply put, I just
want to live in a part of the world that continues to value things
that don't have a money value.
version of this article was first published in Catalonia
Today magazine, January 2015.]
on from the successful ASBA-RMIT Australian Film Season, the
Australian Embassy and Casa Asia are presenting an Australian Film
Season at Cinemas
175, 08025, Barcelona] starting this Saturday, 10
January, and running each Saturday night until 14 February.
I'll tell you how things really are," says one of the author's
characters (speaking in 1936) "whatever they say, this is not a
poor country. This is a country of poor people."
And it is the elements of
social class, poverty and inherited wealth that I most enjoyed in
this book, and not just those about Spain.
Englishman of the title is Anthony Whitelands, a middle-class,
Cambridge-educated art specialist who meets a seemingly generous and
affable police officer on a train to the capital.
long though, we learn that he is being closely watched.
has arrived in an atmosphere of public demonstrations, protest
marches, strikes, beatings and sometimes fatal street violence
between the forces of the right and the left.
victims are largely the young and politically undeveloped but
Whitelands is at first ignorant of all the friction and tension that
was gripping so much of the country.
protagonist is caught up in a number of situations outside his
control and he is also snared by his own appetites: both carnal and
his desire for greater recognition and fortune in "the narrow
world of academia, with its tedious research and sordid rivalries."
sees himself as just a small fish but is convinced that a newly
discovered (privately-owned) Velazquez painting could be exactly what
he his hoping for.
goes on to find himself "in somewhat of a pickle," as his
compatriots might say - everyone in the big, small town of Madrid
wanting a piece of him for their own particular reasons.
appears in many senses to be an "English gentlemen" but he
eats like someone else. I find it hard to accept that he would sit
down to a breakfast of "squid and beer."
other things, what really comes through in the pages of this jaunty,
lively tale is Mendoza's sensitive and intuitive reading of art.
book reads like a longish short story though it has a pace that is
clearly Mediterranean. After ninety pages very little has happened.
a kind of slow burner with the characters regularly spouting extended
"speechifying" monologues or digressing into unconnected
reader gets a good feel for their personalities, facial expressions
and other mannerisms and this all gives the narrative the feel of
something written almost in the period in which it is said. That's
not something easily achieved by a writer sitting at a computer in
the 21st century.
The author is also astute
enough to point out the existence of masons in Azaña's government of
the time and, with an eye for detail, draws what he must think is a
distinction between the British upper class with their apparent love
of ceremony and the Spanish upper class who opt for simpler, less
formal social situations and meals.
of his more observant characters knows the necessity of explaining to
the Englishman that "it's not just money that the proletariat
wants. They want justice and respect."
fact Mendoza drops comments on the hesitancy, contradictory
decision-making and general malfunctioning of public administration
that surely also apply to many companies and to the excesses of
Spaniard's keep wages low," says a English diplomat "while
at the same time making social hierarchies plain. Workers earn half
what they should and have to thank their employers...That way, their
social position is reinforced."
the other hand, one of the Spanish toffs makes the absurd statement
that England has an "egalitarian society based on social
relations that satisfy everyone," as if the trade union members
and socialists in Britain did not exist.
the author entertains and occasionally informs while giving a
relatively favourable portrait of the Spanish "nobility" of
the day. He provides an explanation for their inaction on social
progress that lies somewhere between a reason and a weak excuse.
themselves Pegida, or “patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation
of the Occident”, since October they have marched through Dresden
every Monday. Their numbers are growing: on December 15th 15,000
protested. Their slogans of xenophobic paranoia (“No sharia
in Europe!”) seem bizarre in Saxony, where only 2% of the
population is foreign and fewer than 1% are Muslim.
The marchers make no
attempt to explain their demands. Convinced of a conspiracy of
political correctness, they do not speak to the press. Few bear any
signs of neo-Nazism. They have eschewed violence. What they share is
broad anxiety about asylum-seekers (200,000 in 2014) and immigrants."
To put down Orwell is a mistake. Yes, his book
"Homage to Catalonia" is now dated (in a few parts) but his
other writing, especially his
non-fiction essays are still insightful and highly relevant. I do
agree that it's absurd to build up a picture of Spain only from
people like Hemingway.
Chris Finnegan mentions
a number of books I'd like to read. He could just as easily have also
mentioned two fine authors originally from Barcelona - Eduardo
Mendoza and Juan Goytisolo, whose autobiography
I finished reading recently and highly recommend on a number of
Has there ever been a better time to be alive in the history of our tortured, super-intelligent species?
At the press of a few buttons we have virtually all the accumulated knowledge of the last several hundred (or is it thousand?) years available. And it is available fast.
We have the answers to a billion conceivable questions and we can communicate almost instantly with the majority of people on the planet, language barriers excepted.
For many of us, our taste buds can be stimulated by the food from dozens of cultures who, just a few short years ago were out of reach, either geographically or economically.
In this increasingly mixed European society, young people have started to grow up sitting next to others from Asia, Africa and assorted parts of the wider continent and for them this is as natural as mother's milk.
On top of all this, there is a gentleness that in so many senses did not exist just a generation ago.
A man can be intimately involved in the care of his baby or child without automatically being a figure of gossip or ridicule. He can be the main cook for his family and not be thought of us somehow suspect.
Finally too, homosexuals are more accepted or at least tolerated in the majority of circles, rather than being chemically castrated as some were less than seventy years ago (in the UK for example.)
Today too, there are increasing numbers of people who are not only acknowledging their own depression or mental illness but are speaking openly about it in public forums and in the media.
Such a development was virtually unthinkable merely a decade ago.
Equally though, the average women in the developed world has a wider horizon than ever before. Her place in the workplace is now barely questioned at all, though she may still be paid less than a man or have trouble getting a full-time position or promoted according to her ability.
Yet despite this progress, despite the modern mind being freer from superstition and religious dogma than probably any time in history, what do we also have?
Underneath the shiny towers of vanity there is a great, putrid sewer stench of injustice.
There is the distinct sensation of a nausea without relief and that comes from having both your eyeballs open and your ears unblocked. Anyone who chooses to not be ignorant knows, as Leonard Cohen wrote, "the deal is rotten."
And all those signs of enlightenment that came to view in the the first half of the 20th century now have a faded quality and there is a hollow ring to the chants, songs and poems of social movements.
Throw into this mix the fact that the warming of the earth continues at pace.
It is only those who genuinely don't understand or politicians who have been bought out by the polluting industries that do not accept the truth of the overheating globe that we walk on.
Or think of the wealth that flows through financial systems. Shockingly, the 85 richest people on the planet now have as much money as the poorest 3.5 billion.
is a new play. It’s set in a piano bar run by Marie
with help from her friend Beauridge.
On the surface the bar is just a regular place where people, like
drown their sorrows – and tourists sing to fit in.
Dig a little
deeper, and it’s also a place where troubled souls are fixed. And
so life continues day in day out, until Thea
shows up out of the blue… Drama, humour, despair and hope with a
touch of the surreal in the modern age." See poster
part of the Tricontinental Lecture Series 2014, this Monday and
Tuesday there will be talks by
Extremadura-based Australian poet and writer Rod
readings from his new collection, Convent Mermaid.
of English and German Studies
of Barcelona (UB)
December, at 8.00 in Room 2.2 and at 2.30 in Room 3.1.
the rich and poor eat the same? Do our incomes determine our diet? Today, who is overweight?
Although often, and from certain quarters,
the call for healthy and wholesome food is viewed with disdain, as “a
fad” “posh”, “hippy” or “flower power” the reality is
rather different than these short-sighted comments imply. To defend
ecological, local, peasant food is most 'revolutionary'. "
more from this article by Barcelona journalist and activist, Ester
was born there, grew up there and, until 15 years ago, I lived there.
It's almost become a (very) foreign country to me but recently it has
crept into my thoughts again.
remaining ember of interest in a place, which many people here in
Europe tell me is "very far away," hasn't been prompted by
anything in particular.
just noticed that some of the reasons that made me want to leave it
are still very much alive.
In Australia, there is compulsory
voting in "federal" elections and you are likely to be
fined if you don't go to vote.
months ago this island continent of almost 22 million people elected
a new government with a leader named Tony Abbott, who is without any
doubt the most conservative individual to ever take up the office of
Prime Minister in the history of the nation.
odd thing about this is that Australians themselves have not
typically been thought of as conservative.
the best of the traits that generally marked the average "Aussie"
were tolerance and fair-mindedness with an anti-establishment streak.
If the men and women of any area of the world can accurately be said
to have particular characteristics (and I often doubt that) it is
probably in Australia where it is less likely to be the case, given
that it is a country that has always been populated from immigrants.
from that, you'd expect that in a nominally democratic country the
national government would reflect both the wishes of the people and
the broad values of its people.
a distance, it seems to me that in the last few decades many
Australians have in fact become more money and property obsessed,
more dismissive of the "unproductive" arts industries, more
inward-looking and more easily manipulated by politicians scare
other words, they are now more conservative than ever before.
this, Australians are not unusual though. The same accusation could
be made against many other societies.
think that a big part of the change in Australia is that interest in
social and political causes is now terribly low across the populace.
This partly comes from being a relatively new country with only a
century or so of homegrown history but, even more so, it comes from
the way politics is reported in the mainstream media.
I visit Australia I am struck by how much the governing of the
country is portrayed as merely a battle between the two leaders of
the two major parties - a kind of boxing match or two-horse race.
in almost all its forms is easily the biggest element of culture
across the land.
is nothing that comes close to it for prime time attention or public
discussion, so it is probably not surprising that Australians are
drip fed poll-driven, ultra short-term political issues (often
tax-related) that all turn on how they affect the leaders popularity
or approval ratings.
In a former life (for a few months) I
worked for a local Canberra politician - that rare creature, the
principled and independently-minded one - and it was clear to me even
back then that in the months of actual election campaigning the only
figure who really mattered was the party's chief candidate for the
newspapers, TV, and radio are all in the hands of only two major
companies this problem is made worse.
has been the situation in Australia for more than two generations and
the dominant, apathetic attitude towards any public concern that does
not affect the hip-pocket nerve means that minor parties stay minor.
all this with the fact that, just like the USA and UK for example,
both the two major groupings are as conservative as the majority of
have ended up with a situation where politics is a game.
name of the game is getting your hands on the levers of power and
keeping them there, at any cost.
[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, November 2014.]